Who hasn’t been tempted to use medicinal plants to cure a persistent cold or occasional fatigue? Especially in winter or in-between seasons like now...
Since time immemorial and across different cultures, plant-based remedies have been an integral part of pharmacology, from traditional Chinese medicine to the herbs of Antiquity and, closer to home, First Nations curesand have been used to treat virtually any ailment. The benefits of medicinal plants are manifold. They can soothe, stimulate, strengthen, prevent or heal.
In the era of monastic gardens and throughout the medieval period, scientific developments made it possible to isolate and synthesize plants’ main active agents to make medicine. Using medicinal plants requires in-depth knowledge of diseases, plants, preparations and dosages. These active elements are found in different parts of the plant—the roots, rhizomes, leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds and, in some cases, the bark. But beware! Medicinal plants can be toxic if taken in large doses—leave them to the experts!
For every problem, a plant
Medicinal plants are used to treat all kinds of ailments. For example, common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), caraway (Carum carvi) and mint (Mentha x piperita) help with digestion problems.
Échinacée - Crédit photo : Lise Servant, Jardin botanique de Montréal
Mallow (Malva sylvestris) and marshmallow(Althaea officinalis) offer emollient properties in aid of the respiratory system. St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) calm the central nervous system. The immune system is boosted by astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and echinacea (Echinacea purpurea). Medicinal plants offer many more varied and complementary properties: tonic, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, laxative, healing, vermifuge and good for the heart. The same plant may have a number of different virtues. This is the case of garlic (Allium sativum), which is an antibiotic, a hypotensor, an antioxidant, and a lipid- and cholesterol-reducing agent.
We prescribe a large dose of caution!
Menthe - Crédit photo : Gilles Murray, Jardin botanique de Montréal
The beneficial powers of medicinal plants do have their limits. Their effects can vary from person to person, depending on metabolism and susceptibility to the active ingredients. You should therefore not hesitate to see a doctor if symptoms worsen and medicinal plants can no longer help. The active elements of medicinal plants may be beneficial at a particular dosage, but a larger dose may be toxic. It is best to leave them to the experts. Consult a qualified herbalist. Caution is recommended for everyone, but particularly for pregnant women. It is also important to consider potential interactions with other medications. If you are taking any medicinal plant products, it is essential to mention this to your pharmacist to avoid any problems—or major accidents.
What does the future hold in store?
Thousands of plant species have been used by traditional and modern medicine to treat everything from minor complaints to serious diseases. As research and science are constantly evolving, new discoveries in plant medicine may be on the way. We need look no further than Taxol®, the active ingredient extracted from the yew tree (Taxus sp.), which helps in the treatment of certain cancers. Does the future hope of medicine lie in nature?
A garden of discovery
Jardin des plantes médicinales. Crédit : Lise Servant, Jardin botanique de Montréal
If you are not very familiar with medicinal plants, why not learn more about them at the Jardin botanique de Montréal? You will find them in the Medicinal Plants Garden, on the western side of the exhibition gardens.